William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Think again

You may know the tale about a frog and a pot of boiling water. The frog leaps immediately out when tossed into a boiling pot. But it stays comfortably in a lukewarm pot that slowly raises its temperature. It fails to reconsider its situation of gradual change until its too late.

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant notes a wrinkle in this story: it isn’t true. A scalding pot will badly harm the frog, whereas a frog will leap out of a pot as soon as it gets uncomfortably warm. As Grant puts it, “It’s not the frogs who fail to reevaluate. It’s us. Once we hear the story and accept it as true, we rarely bother to question it.” Moreover, he even notes how “Being good at thinking can make you worse at rethinking.”

Jumping to conclusions comes easily. The convictions of others are idiotic, selfish, or cruel. Perhaps. Yet sometimes it’s their particular strategy and posture that’s more problematic. Rethinking can help us draw better conclusions, make better decisions, and live with fewer regrets. This isn’t just Adam Grant’s idea. The Torah recommends it too.

For example, the second paragraph of Judaism’s core Shema prayer in this week’s portion of Torah sounds initially like third-grade theology. ‘If you heed God’s commandments, your harvest will be abundant. If not, it won’t. So be wary of straying” (Deut 11:13-17 summary). It is also possible to read this passage entirely differently based on biblical Hebrew’s subtleties ‘If you heed God’s commandments and your harvest is abundant, be wary of thinking one caused the other. Such thinking fuels a vending-machine pagan theology’. So, initially we think it’s third-grade theology. But when we think again, it could actually be a polemic against it.

This week’s portion is all about rethinking our assumptions concerning things like why we’re successful and what we should think when life is good and plentiful. Self-congratulation is not a good idea. Think instead about the larger story of which we are a part, of God’s promises and of our indebtedness.

When connecting-the-dots makes you think more of you and less of the larger story of which you are a part, you’re not inferring well. By contrast, if assessments lead you to consider the promissory note cosigned inside you that tethers your soul to its divine source, or to appreciate the kinship between your projects and those of your ancestors, then thinking again is doing you a service.

May this week’s lessons make you more proficient at rethinking. It’s not about changing what you value. Rather it’s about changing how you advance it.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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